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Scouting Pitchers: Cliff Lee

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

(Statistics as of 9/23/08)

This year's probable AL Cy Young winner was available off the waiver wire in many leagues in the beginning of the year. Lee entered the year fighting for his job after an injury-plagued and ineffective 2007 in which he ended up in the minors. Since he won the fifth starter job in spring training, he has led the AL in wins (22), winning percentage (.88), and ERA (2.54), and is second in innings (223.1), WHIP (1.11), and complete games (4). He has allowed just 12 home runs after giving up 105 in his first 742 major league innings.

I scout these pitchers personally, recording their velocity, pitch selection and motions by watching their games. I use the standard 20-80 scouting scale to rate pitchers. These velocities are suggestive and not determinant of a pitch's rating. For example, a 75 MPH curveball might rank as a 60 because of its movement and/or deception. Please feel free to post your thoughts below on the pitcher or the column.

80 Outstanding (96+ MPH fastball, 88+ MPH slider, 82 MPH curveball)
70 Well above average (94-95 FB, 86-87 MPH SL, 80-81 MPH CB)
60 Above average (92-93 MPH FB, 84-85 MPH SL, 78-79 MPH CB)
50 Average (89-91 MPH FB, 82-84 MPH SL, 75-77 MPH CB)
40 Below average (86-88 MPH FB, 79-81 MPH SL, 73-75 MPH CB)
30 Well below average (83-85 MPH FB, 76-78 MPH SL, 71-72 MPH CB)
20 Poor (80-82 MPH FB, 71-75 MPH SL, 69-70 MPH CB)

Drafted but not signed in the 1997 and 1998 drafts, Montreal finally inked the left-handed Lee (6-3, 190) in 2000 with a fourth-round pick out of the University of Arkansas. Lee breezed through Class A in 2000 and 2001, when he posted a 2.79 ERA in 110 Florida State League innings. Current Mets GM Omar Minaya dealt Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon in July 2002. The Expos were nearing the end of their life and Minaya traded three future stars trying to make the playoffs.

Lee tossed 146 innings in Double- and Triple-A in 2002 and made his big league debut. In 2003, he finished his minor league seasoning with 80 more innings and posted a 3.61 ERA in nine AL starts. Lee had an abdominal strain before the 2003 season and hernia surgery after it, weakening him for 2004. He missed most of spring training and unraveled after starting 5-0, 2.81 in his first 10 starts, going 9-8, 6.71 in his last 23. Lee blossomed in 2005 as he cut his walks to 52 and had a 3.79 ERA in 202 innings. His 18 wins led all major league left-handers.

Although he denied it, Lee's inconsistent 2006 (14-11, 4.40) might have been impacted by contract negotiations that were resolved in August. He sustained another abdominal strain in March 2007 and never got untracked. Lee was lit up for a 6.29 ERA in 20 major league games last year, including four relief appearances. The Indians farmed him out to Triple-A Buffalo for the month of August. In the offseason, Lee worked a lot on strengthening his core muscles to address his history of abdominal and groin injuries. He looked strong in spring training and has been the best starter in baseball.

Cliff Lee: (G/F 1.39)

		Rating:  %Thrown:
Fastball	60		55		
Curveball	55		15
Slider		55		10
Changeup	65		20
Control	70
Delivery	65
Composure	75

Lee has always had above-average stuff, especially for a left-hander. His fastball runs from 89-92 MPH and touches 93-94 on occasion. Lee's 80-85 MPH changeup is his secret weapon, as he releases it with the same arm speed as his fastball. It doesn't have a lot of movement, but induces a lot of weak popops with its late action. Lee also has an 85-86 MPH slider and an 85 MPH sinker or cutter.

Lee has grown in several ways this year. He improved his offseason conditioning, leading to a better and more consistent fastball. Lee had a reputation for stubbornness, as he tended to pound right-handed hitters high and inside regardless of the results. He didn't mix his off-speed pitches into his game plan despite the entreaties of the Indians coaches. As a strikeout/flyball pitcher, he tended to run up high pitch counts early.

Lee has been much more aggressive in 2008, dropping his pitches per inning from 16.8 in 2006 and 17.0 last year to a very economical 14.7. His G/F ratio is a dramatically improved 1.39. The Indians have turned 26 double plays behind him - more than 2006 and 2007 combined. While Lee still comes inside and in to right-handers with his fastball, he is also locating it well all over the strike zone. His curveball is just slow enough to be a surprise, and he is cautious with making mistakes with it. Lee's slider and sinker have also helped him improve his G/F ratio.

Another obvious improvement has been Lee's confidence. He wastes no time in between pitches, putting hitters on the defensive. Aggressive pitchers are able to get away with more mistakes, as they make the opposition adapt to them. Lee's motion was always fundamentally sound, as he distributes the stress of his delivery well throughout his body.

The old saw is that left-handers take longer to develop, but the best lefthanders of the past 10 years (CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle, Andy Pettitte, Scott Kazmir) have developed quickly. Baseball's page on Lee isn't optimistic about his career development (Darren Oliver?), but those projections lean heavily on his poor 2007. I think Erik Bedard, despite his 2008 struggles, is a good comparison.


Radar Love: Heat in the last week:

94-98: Felix Hernandez in Oakland on September 19th.
93-96: Kerry Wood in closing out the NL Central on September 20th.
90-93: Oliver Perez in Atlanta on September 19th.
87-92: Scott Kazmir against the Twins on September 20th.
88-92: Jo-Jo Reyes against the Mets on September 19th.
88-91: Kevin Slowey in Tampa Bay on September 20th.
88-91: Dana Eveland against the Mariners on September 19th.

Next week: NL Central: CC Sabathia


Article first appeared 9/28/08